By Steve Thompson
Clint McRae’s family has ranched Montana’s Tongue River Valley for 135 years. Now two powerful corporations are asking the federal government to seize a nine mile swath of his land — and to turn it over to them — so they can export coal to China.
McRae’s Rocker Six Ranch sits at the epicenter of a great constitutional and ethical dispute. Should government powers be granted to Arch Coal so it may forcibly take McRae’s land to build the Tongue River Railroad? Should the State of Montana sacrifice public lands in Otter Creek so Arch Coal’s proposed strip mine may fill those coal trains bound for China?
Those questions, and the local, regional and global impacts, will be the focus of a community forum in Whitefish on Tuesday, April 2, at 7 p.m. at the Bohemian Grange Hall. The public is also invited to a social hour and potluck at 6 p.m.
I reached Clint McCrae last week at his ranch in southeastern Montana. We both recently attended public hearings in Washington state about five new coal export terminals proposed by coal companies hungry for Chinese yuan. Despite strong public opposition to coal exports, he noted, many politicians seem beholden to the brass-knuckle tactics of out-of-state coal companies.
Money seems more important than voters to some politicians. But, Clint noted with a chuckle, “I was amused that most of the political candidates at the pro-coal rally in Billings in October were handily defeated in the last election cycle.”
McRae retains his sense of humor, but he’s passionate about the threat to his family’s ranch.
“A line has been crossed,” said McRae. “There’s something categorically wrong that we’re facing federal condemnation by a private, for-profit corporation so they can haul coal to China.”
McRae is a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, a grassroots conservation and family agriculture group that organizes Montana citizens to protect ranches, water quality and rural quality of life. NPRC members will present their perspective at the April 2 forum.
If Montana coal is exported to China, potential impacts in Whitefish and Columbia Falls include:
• Amtrak delays and impacts on tourism
• More trains and traffic delays
• Harmful coal dust and increased diesel emissions
A rail official at BNSF told me that coal trains are unlikely to affect Whitefish because the seven mile long Flathead Tunnel near Trego limits trains to 45 a day. He neglected to tell me, however, that BNSF is undertaking a major upgrade to the tunnel, which will boost train capacity by 30 percent. NPRC and other farm groups say that Whitefish will see 15-30 coal trains a day if the coal export scheme is successful.
Global impacts are even more serious. Reality-based Montanans accept scientific evidence that burning fossil fuels heats the planet. Plants living hundreds of millions of years ago geologically morphed into coal, oil and gas. We are releasing this vast carbon bank into the air at an accelerating rate, increasing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — by 40 percent during the industrial era. The worst polluters are coal and Alberta’s tar sands.
However, not everyone understands the moral urgency to take action on climate change. It is not just another headache to heap onto the growing pile of social issues. As Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Ross Gelbspan says, “Climate change is the issue that swamps all other issues.”
When people ask me why I am passionate about the local and global impacts of coal exports, I tell them about Clint McRae. He and other ranchers in the Tongue River Valley have helped me connect the dots between my community, our state, and the future of the world.
— Whitefish resident Steve Thompson volunteers as coordinator of the Flathead Climate Alliance.